About This Guide
I grew up half and half between the United States and New Zealand. In 2003 I moved from Portland, Oregon to New Zealand so I could take a job working in Wellington. Though I partially grew up in New Zealand, I hadn’t lived there since 1997 and had never lived in Wellington.
Since we moved I’ve been asked repeatedly about how we like it, what it takes to move and what people should know before they move. This guide makes no claim to be definitive or even correct, it is simply a collection of my experiences and thoughts. Due to my personal experience it is probably most relevant to Americans thinking about moving to New Zealand though I hope it will be relevant to anyone considering the move.
New Zealand is made up of two major islands (the North Island and the South Island) and some smaller outlying ones (Stewart Island and the Chatham Islands). The North Island is 113,729 square km and holds three of the four million people who live here, the South Island is 151,215 square km and has most of the remaining population. Two of the three million people who live in the North Island, live in Auckland. To give you some perspective, the combined size of New Zealand is approximately two thirds of the size of California yet the entire population is less than that of the San Francisco Bay Area.
There are five main cities, Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington in the North Island and Christchurch and Dunedin in the South Island. Auckland is by far the largest, is the business centre and the most “American”. Hamilton is an inland rural service city with Waikato University. Wellington is the capital and Christchurch and Dunedin are mostly rural centres though they are large enough to be cities in their own right. All except Hamilton are coastal and built around natural ports, and have coastal weather with all that that implies.
It’s important to understand that the best and the worst thing about New Zealand is that it is a very long way from every where else. It’s a 12 hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles and four hours to Sydney. This distance keeps it somewhat insulated from the turbulence and influence of the world and seems to be what attracts people to it. However, this distance also means that many of the conveniences (speciality foods, gadgets, shopping, performance art, near by holiday spots, conferences, etc) you are used to are more expensive and harder to find.
If you want the cold hard facts about New Zealand a good place to look is the CIA Word Fact Book’s entry for New Zealand.
Because New Zealand is below the equator the seasons are reversed. This means that the months of summer are from December to February (yes this means Christmas is in high summer!). This also means that the sun arcs to the north and confusingly it apparently arcs counter-clockwise. The farther south you go, the closer you get to Antarctica, and the colder it becomes. Once I meet a middle aged tourist in Dunedin who said he had heard NZ summer weather was poor but that horizontal rain and 4°C was ridiculous for the middle of July! I had to gently explain that it was the middle of winter. – Brett Shand
The entire country has an “island climate” which means that the weather changes continually and you get rain, storms and sun all year round. If it helps you get a feeling there is a local joke which goes, “What do you do if you don’t like the weather? Wait 15 minutes”. In general the farther north you go the warmer the weather while the farther inland you go the more settled the weather and the greater the seasonal temperature variations.
By and large the climate is temperate but there are large regional variations. Depending on where you are the climate can vary from temperate rain forest, to sub-tropical, to Mediterranean and even to desert.
Each of the major cities has a noticeably different climate, and since the cities are where most people end up and everyone wants to know about the weather, here’s my take on it (note that I’ve only ever lived in Wellington and Dunedin though I’ve visited all of them):
- Auckland – The warmest of the five but tends to be quite wet with a lot of rain storms and drizzle (I’ve heard it compared to Florida but can’t personally comment). In the summer it will get into the 90°F but it will rarely (if ever?) drop below freezing in the winter (no snow or ice).
- Hamilton – They only one of the five which isn’t on the coast, it’s sunny and humid in Spring and hot and dry during summer. Temperatures can reach into the 90°Fs in summer while winter brings cooler temperatures getting down to around 30°F. Winter mornings are often frosty or foggy, and thunderstorms are common year round.
- Wellington – Known for being windy it gets a handful of near gale force storms every year and is generally fairly windy all year round. It gets quite a lot of sun and rain (think a windy Seattle). The summer will get up into 80°F with bursts into higher temperatures though often the breeze means that it still feels quite cool. In the winter you will get light snow on the hills but almost never in the city and even frost and ice are rare.
- Christchurch – Probably the best of the five for my tastes. Summers are similar to Wellington but without the wind (except for the hot Nor’Westers), winters are colder with very occasional snow but frosts and ice being common.
- Dunedin – The coldest of the five, and my least favourite weather. Summers are are mostly in the 60°Fs with a week or two spiking up into 80-90°F and tend to be wet (compare to the Oregon Coast). Winters get less rain but are cold with heavy frosts and ice being common and occasional light snow (once a year or so).
You can find the current weather for New Zealand and the the major cities at metservice.com.
Being a citizen I actually don’t know that much about how this works, so this will be fairly vague. The rules are constantly changing so please double check anything I say.
Unless you have a criminal conviction, you should have no problems getting into the country with a tourist visa. Tourist visas are typically good for three months and can be extended for up to a year (not sure of what conditions apply). If you want to live in New Zealand you will need to get a work visa or apply for residency. Your application is processed on a points system where things like your age, if you already have family in the country, how much money you are bringing with you, your education, the size of your family and your job skills are all worth a certain number of points. If you have enough points then you can expect to get a visa without too much trouble. It cost us nearly NZ$1000 to get my wife’s residency finalised so be prepared to spend some money on the process. Be wary of immigration agents who offer to help for a fee, there are scam artists out looking to take advantage of people. All the information you need is available for free from the NZ government.
Once you have held a valid visa for two years and lived in New Zealand for a certain percentage of that time (something like 80%) you may apply for permanent residency. Being a resident gives you the right to work, attend school (at the same subsidised rate as New Zealanders), cheap health care (and free emergency health care) and also confers the right to vote. Once you’ve been a resident for four years you may apply for citizenship.
If you have a long term partner that you are not married to, New Zealand honours de facto relationships (common law marriage), so if one of you gets a job here you should be able to bring the other. You should expect a healthy chunk of extra paperwork to prove that you’ve been living together and have “entwined finances”.
The property market has recently exploded with housing prices doubling every few years in some places. This is due mostly to the construction market being unable to keep up with the demands placed on it by a recent large influx of immigrants and a large amount of overseas investment in New Zealand real estate. The severity of the increases and the slowly increasing interest rate has many people predicting that house prices will fall in the near future. What will actually happen is still any ones guess.
House prices vary drastically depending on where you live. Auckland is the most expensive with Wellington close behind, Christchurch and Dunedin are much cheaper but are trying hard to catch up. Smaller towns will be cheaper still unless they are also a popular holiday spot in which case prices can remain a bit absurd. In Wellington or Auckland, in a good suburb which is close to downtown you can expect to pay over NZ$500,000 for a family sized home. For something a bit farther out or in a less desirable area you can get a nice family size house for around NZ$300,000. In smaller towns or the outer suburbs you can still find nice housing for under NZ$200,000 though they are getting harder to find. The best way to get a feel for house prices is to browse the listings from the real estate agents.
Because of increasing property prices, rental prices are also increasing. In Wellington or Auckland you can expect to pay around NZ$350/week for a small house or a nice apartment near downtown. If you’re willing to live farther out of town or in smaller and older houses much cheaper options are available. It’s fairly common for strangers to share a house and live together, this can significantly cut down on rent and utility bills. You should be able to find a room in house or apartment for anywhere from NZ$80 – $200/week.
You can find pretty much any type of lease you are looking for (fixed term, month to month etc) and rent is typically paid weekly by automatic payment (straight from your bank account to the landlords). Many flats are leased without appliances so you should be prepared to buy or rent a fridge/freezer. washer/dryer and anything else you need. You can expect to pay 2-4 weeks rent in advance, 2-4 weeks bond (security deposit) and give 30 days notice if you want to end the lease. The bond is not held by the landlord but rather by the Tenancy Tribunal. When the lease ends the Tribunal decides if the landlord gets to keep any of your money and you must apply to them to get your money back (I believe you can request that it be transferred to your next bond).
If you are going to be renting it’s a good idea to stop by the Tenancy Tribunal and get one of their pamphlets about your rights and obligations as a renter as there are landlords around who will try and take advantage of you.
Most houses do not have central heating and are poorly insulated which keeps heating costs higher than you would expect. Because of this most people only keep the rooms they are using heated which can take a bit of getting used to by most Americans. Even in the heated rooms it’s considered normal to only heat to the point where you are comfortable when wearing a warm layer (eg. a sweater or sweatshirt).
Update 16 May 2008: As with the rest of the western world NZ property prices have stalled and Dunedin property prices slipped by an average if 1.2% last quarter. Property prices are expected to continue to stall and fall somewhat in some places. Mortgage rates are high (around 9%) but as the economy slows with the rest of the west, banks are starting to reduce them.
In general you can expect things to be more expensive, especially anything which has to be imported from overseas (brand name and speciality items, appliances, electronics, cars). This is partly due to the cost of importing, partly due to economies of scale, partly due to the exchange rate and partly due to many of the conveniences which American stores take advantage of (eg. free return of unsold goods) being unavailable to NZ stores.
The exceptions to the more expensive rule is food, health care and insurance. Food is similarly priced and the quality is very good, even from the supermarkets. Health care is subsidised by the government and costs are similar to what you would pay if you had insurance in the states. Because of the limitations on what you can sue for insurance is still very cheap.
The biggest difference is that cars have the steering wheel on the right hand side of the card and you drive on the left hand side of the road. This means that it’s not practical to bring your car with you from a country which drives on the right had side of the road. Even though you can drive on your American drivers license for one year it’s worth going down to the Ministry of Transport (the equivalent of the DMV) and getting a copy of the road rules as there are a few rules which are confusingly different from the States.
With limited exceptions in Wellington and Auckland there is nothing that compares to the American freeway system. Roads tend to be narrow and even major highways are mostly two lane roads (one lane each way).
There is a fairly cheap and reliable bus service (much much nicer than American buses) between most cities and trains between the major cities. Trains can be quite cheap but are also slow and prone to breaking down.
Domestic air travel is still fairly expensive but it’s getting cheaper and I’m hopeful that the new cut rate air services will make flying around New Zealand and to and from Australia a more reasonable option.
Public transportation within the cities exists but is nothing special. Almost all cities have a bus service of some sort and some have light rail for the major commuter lines. Wellington is probably about as good as it gets as the bus service is decent and the city is quite compact due to the way it’s built around the hills and the harbour.
Traffic congestion is getting to be a significant problem in Auckland but it isn’t bad by American standards anywhere else.
The Job Market
The economy is currently booming, unemployment is around 3.5% (16 May 2008) and there is a worker shortage. If you’re looking to move to New Zealand to work there will probably never be a better time.
If you do high tech work there is plenty of work all over the country though the majority of the senior level “interesting” work will be in Auckland and Wellington. You should expect salaries to peak earlier than they do in the states with it being hard to find jobs for more than NZ$80k/year for purely technical jobs.
Finding work from overseas can be very difficult unless you know local people that can vouch for you (and even that may only be of limited help). Occasionally I run into people who come to New Zealand on a holiday visa and spend their time here looking for work. I don’t know how it works out for them but I suspect being available for interviews and being able to meet people face to face will help immensely. You have to remember that once you find a job you still have to go through all the paperwork of applying for a work/residency visa and that you may be required to leave the country to submit the application and only allowed to re-enter once your new visa is approved.
You should double check the legality and practicality of this before you try it.
Tips and Tricks
- Overall the differences between American and New Zealand ways of life aren’t that large, you should be able to walk into the country and manage without too much struggle. There are however enough small differences that over time you can end up feeling like you are in quite strange place. The single best piece of advice I can offer is to not expect anything and just let it go. Avoid getting bogged down in the little stuff and simply enjoy the ride. Besides chances are that all the things you’re worried about will not be a problem and you’ll get ambushed by things which never occurred to you.
- Once you are here, try and avoid comparing it to your old home. Try and just accept what you find and deal with it and form new opinions based on your experiences rather than doing the “this is better”, “this is worse” ritual.
- Americans tend to be pushier and more comfortable asking for what they want than your typical Kiwi. This makes it easy to be perceived as an “arrogant American” even when you think you’re being very reasonable. This is not to say that pushing for what you want is bad, just be aware that it may not always make you friends.
- My Dad taught me that when you make a big move and all your history is in another country/context it’s really easy to start all your stories with “When I was in America …”. Unfortunately this tends to come off wrong, instead just tell your stories and don’t worry about the fact that they happened somewhere else.
- Remember that anything you ship will take several months to arrive. If you are going to need it as soon as you arrive either sell it and buy it when you get here or try and take it on the plane with you.
- If you are trying to bring as much with you as possible, you can often bring extra checked bags for a fee. Check with your airline carrier but often paying the fee can work out cheaper than re-buying everything you need when you get to New Zealand.
- Wallmart has large plastic boxes which are just under the maximum size allowed for airplane checked baggage. The ones we purchased were about US$20 each, black with a light grey hinged top and a red catch (and about 3 ft. x 2 ft. x 2 ft.). They are nearly indestructible and when combined with a ratcheted strap tie down make close to the perfect checked bag. The one thing to bear in mind is that it’s easy to fill them to the point where they exceed the maximum allowed weight (and repacking at the ticket counter sucks!).
- Partly because lots of goods have to be imported and are quite expensive, New Zealand has a thriving second hand market. You can often get very nice appliances and furniture from the second hand stores. It can pay to hit them early in the morning before they get cleaned out of the best new stuff that arrived the day before.
- If you have to rent appliances for your apartment or house many rental places (and second hand stores) will deliver for a fairly nominal fee (NZ$20-$30). Before you have a car (or if you live in a city like Wellington with lots of houses up very steep and narrow paths) this can be well worth the extra money.
- Many houses, especially older houses, tend to be draughty and damp. When you are looking for a place to live look for houses which face north and get the sun. Remember that in the winter the sun is lower in the sky and will disappear behind hills much earlier. Trust me, you’ll care.
- Telecom is the monopoly telco and Spark (used to be Xtra) is their ISP division. You can get decent DSL in most places and fibre is currently (2015) being rolled out across the country.
- If you want an international drivers license you can get one very cheaply from the AAA (you must get it before you leave), however you don’t actually need it. You are allowed to drive for up to 12 months on a valid American drivers license.
- If you have car insurance in the States and haven’t claimed anything for over a year, get a claim report from your insurance company before you leave. For every year you can prove that you’ve been insured and haven’t made a claim most New Zealand insurance companies will give you a 10% “no claims bonus” on your yearly premium (eg. if you’ve had insurance and not claimed for three years your premium will be at a 30% discount).
- In order for a car to be legal to drive it must have current registration papers (similar to how it works in the States) and a current Warrant of Fitness. A WOF is primarily a check that the car is safe to be driven and must be renewed every six months (unless you have a new car in which case it’s every year for two years). Once a car becomes uneconomic to Warrant (eg. it will cost more to fix a piece of structural rust than the car is worth), it’s value drops close to zero. At present cars do not require emission testing but it’s coming.
- People in the service industry get paid well enough that they don’t require tips to survive. It is not expected to tip for anything though you won’t offend anyone if you do.
- Mains power is 220V at 50Hz vs. as opposed to 110V and 60Hz in the States. Most modern computer and electronics gear has universal transformers which will operate at either voltage, but the different frequency can be a real problem when motor speed is critical (eg. with stereos and DVDs).
- Many bathrooms (and most hotel/motel bathrooms) have a 110V plug with American plug adapters. You can’t use them for high wattage devices (hair driers often blow fuses) but for things like American shavers they work great.
- Air travel normally goes between Auckland and Los Angeles (or sometimes San Francisco), takes about 12 hours in the air, and you can expect to pay around US$1400 for a round trip ticket. Over the years I’ve paid as little US$699 and as much as US$2500 for a ticket. Trips on frequent flyer miles are available but often all qualified seats are booked as much as a year in advance.
- As part of a round trip fare you can often get a a free stop off in Australia or the Pacific Islands. It can be a nice way to break up the trip if you have the inclination.
- Bond – Security deposit
- De facto Relationship – Common law marriage
- Third Party Insurance – Liability insurance
- First Party Insurance – Comprehensive insurance
- Flat – Apartment or any rented residence
- Flatmate – Some one who shares your house/apartment with you
- MOT – Ministry of Transport (the equivalent of the DMV)
- 2 Degrees – My favourite internet and mobile provider
- Ascent – Online computer store with reasonable prices
- CIA World Fact Book
- Consumer Online – Excellent product and service reviews, some are free
- Countdown Supermarket – Gives an idea of NZ food prices (NZD of course)
- Dick Smith – The NZ version of Radio Shack. The same caveats apply!
- DTR – Appliance rentals
- Pacific Blue – Cut rate air travel
- Maps of New Zealand
- New Zealand Immigration Service
- Open2View – Best real estate web site
- Telstra/Clear – Internet Service Provider (Cable modems)
- Tenancy Tribunal
- The Warehouse – NZ’s version of Wallmart
- Trade Me – New Zealand’s eBay
- Brett Shand for proof reading, making suggestions and ongoing updates.
- Jayne and Sean for asking enough questions to finally get me to write this!